By Zachary Cohen, Oren Liebermann and Haley Britzky, CNN
Washington (CNN) — An early Biden administration initiative to root out extremism in the military was designed to identify people like Jack Teixeira, the 21-year-old Air National Guardsman with a long-history of violent and racist behavior now accused of perpetrating one of the biggest leaks of classified documents in modern history.
But more than two years after the Countering Extremism Working Group was formed inside the Pentagon, the effort has vanished virtually without a trace.
As the Pentagon grapples with the aftermath of the leak, the working group’s stated objectives look eerily prescient, and, in some cases, tailor-made to zero-in on the sort of anti-government, White supremacist behavior and views espoused by Teixeira.
CNN interviews with multiple sources familiar with the working group reveal that the Pentagon largely abandoned the effort to combat extremism in its ranks, as senior officials folded under political pressure from Republicans who lashed out at the initiative as an example of so-called wokeism in the military.
Of the six recommendations the working group made at the end of 2021, only one has begun to be implemented across the Defense Department, a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters on May 18.
A casualty of the war on ‘woke’
The working group’s since-departed leader, a Black combat veteran named Bishop Garrison, came under withering attack in 2021 by GOP lawmakers and right-wing media personalities, including one Fox News host who described him as a “MAGA purge man” for criticizing former President Donald Trump in a tweet prior to assuming the extremism adviser role at the Pentagon.
Though senior officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, privately and publicly backed Garrison for a few months, multiple sources tell CNN the sustained GOP criticism eventually eroded internal support for him.
As a result, Garrison and his work were quietly pushed aside, several current and former defense officials said.
“He was deemed to be a distraction,” one defense official said. “He was one of the early casualties in the war on ‘woke.’”
As Garrison became a lightning rod for Republican criticism, ultimately making him “politically toxic,” the official said, it became easier for the Defense Department to turn its efforts elsewhere in the summer of 2021, with the looming withdrawal from Afghanistan and more focus on the handling of sexual assault.
Senior Pentagon leaders were also concerned that Garrison might open them up to additional criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill and stymie their efforts to get congressional support for other priorities like combating sexual assault in the military and addressing suicide rates among service members, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.
A ‘zero-ripple pebble’
Another reason the working group failed was that its task was nearly impossible to implement, sources told CNN. The Pentagon has long struggled with how not only to define extremist activity but also how to police it without violating the rights of troops.
Though the definition of extremist activity was updated as a result of the working group, sources told CNN it has had no measurable impact. For all of the ceremony around its release, one defense official described the new definition as a “zero-ripple pebble in the pond.”
Said another official of the difficulty in trying to define extremist activity, “It’s like saying something is bad, but not being able to say what’s bad in the first place.”
An independent study of extremist activity across the entire US military was supposed to have been finished last June by the Institute for Defense Analysis, a national security research non-profit. But there is no evidence the study ever happened or that any report was ever released. The IDA referred all questions about the study to the Defense Department, which declined to comment on its status.
Kris Goldsmith, Army veteran and CEO of Task Force Butler, a non-profit focused on combating extremism in the military, said the way top Defense officials view the issue of extremism is “paralyzing.”
“They’re making themselves completely ineffective,” Goldsmith said, telling CNN: “I don’t recognize any difference today from two years ago in the way that extremism is treated in the military.”
According to a Defense Department inspector general report, there were 146 allegations of extremist or supremacist activity across the military in the previous fiscal year, exactly half of which was in the Army.
Trouble from the start
In February 2021, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tapped Garrison to oversee the effort to better define the scope of the extremist problem in the ranks and ensure that troops know what behaviors are not acceptable.
A former West Point cadet who served two tours in Iraq with the US Army, Garrison had worked for the Biden-Harris transition team and was viewed internally as a natural pick for the job of rooting out extremism in the military. In his new role, Garrison reported directly to Austin.
In an April 9, 2021 press release, Austin officially announced the creation of the Countering Extremism Working Group and announced it would be led by Garrison. Among its objectives were updating the military’s definition of extremism, standardizing screening questionnaires to solicit specific information about current or previous extremist behavior and commission an independent study on extremist behavior within the entire force.
Before the end of the month however, it became clear that Garrison had his work cut out for him. In a congressional hearing on April 20, two four-star military commanders testified that the US military did not have problems with extremism in its ranks.
The next day, speaking at seminar on White supremacist violence, Garrison pushed back on that testimony and contradicted the military commanders. “It would be remiss if we didn’t admit that there is a problem with extremist behavior in the military. That is to say that one extremist is one too many,” Garrison told a Center for American Progress think tank seminar.
Garrison quickly drew Republican criticism as GOP lawmakers and right-wing media personalities seized on tweets he had previously sent criticizing then-President Trump.
GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz, a staunch Trump ally, claimed during a House Armed Services Committee hearing that month he was “deeply troubled” by a tweet Garrison wrote in January 2020, as Trump’s impeachment trial was underway, which read: “Calls for civility, rather than shouting down falsehoods and misinformation, shall be the death of this nation.”
Days later, 30 Republican members of the House signed a letter complaining of “creeping left-wing extremism” in the military, citing a report from a conservative media that singled out Garrison’s tweets.
Austin’s public support for Garrison appeared to evaporate later that summer and multiple sources told CNN his work also had also become deprioritized inside the Pentagon by that time.
The working group ultimately produced a final report in December 2021 that outlined the military’s new definition of extremism and provided several recommendations for how to better identify such behavior among servicemen.
But the new definition and its roadmap of potential consequences has largely fallen flat, according to two defense officials who spoke with CNN.
“When it was announced, it was not really major,” said another source familiar with the matter.
For his part, Garrison strongly defends his work at the Pentagon, calling the working group “historic.”
“While past defense leaders dealt with a variety of topics prominent in societal discourse over the years, none took on extremist activity and its potential corrosive effect on the cohesion of the Total Force in this manner,” Garrison said in a statement to CNN.
In light of the alleged leaks from Teixeira, Garrison further defended the importance of his work in rooting out extremist behavior.
“Individuals that engage in this behavior make the department less safe internal and make its external work more difficult. That’s true whether their actions are of a violent nature or damage the trust in DoD as an institution like Airman First Class Jack Teixeira’s classified leaks. The department should be vocal about the productive policies it had out in place while acknowledging it can and should do more.”
Even if they had been better implemented, it’s unclear whether the working group’s recommendations would have prevented Teixeira’s alleged leaks. One of the officials who spoke to CNN said at the least, they “may have prevented other Teixeiras.”
And given all the red flags in Teixeira’s past that went unheeded, the lack of follow through looks damning in hindsight.
The Defense Department only learned about the leak on April 6, four months after prosecutors say Teixeira began posting the documents on Discord.
Teixeira also allegedly asked another user for advice on how to carry out a shooting “in a crowded urban or suburban environment,” demonstrating again the type of online behavior that qualifies as extremist under the working group’s updated definition.
“Teixeira is a great example of how the Department of Defense has failed to figure out how to root out extremists,” said Goldsmith.
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